Food and Behaviour Research

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Which foods may be addictive? The roles of processing, fat content, and glycemic load.

Schulte EM, Avena NM, Gearhardt AN (2015) PLoS One.   doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0117959 

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Abstract:

OBJECTIVES:

We propose that highly processed foods share pharmacokinetic properties (e.g. concentrated dose, rapid rate of absorption) with drugs of abuse, due to the addition of fat and/or refined carbohydrates and the rapid rate the refined carbohydrates are absorbed into the system, indicated by glycemic load (GL). The current study provides preliminary evidence for the foods and food attributes implicated in addictive-like eating.

DESIGN:

Cross-sectional.

SETTING:

University (Study One) and community (Study Two).

PARTICIPANTS:

120 undergraduates participated in Study One and 384 participants recruited through Amazon MTurk participated in Study Two.

MEASUREMENTS:

In Study One, participants (n = 120) completed the Yale Food Addiction Scale (YFAS) followed by a forced-choice task to indicate which foods, out of 35 foods varying in nutritional composition, were most associated with addictive-like eating behaviors. Using the same 35 foods, Study Two utilized hierarchical linear modeling to investigate which food attributes (e.g., fat grams) were related to addictive-like eating behavior (at level one) and explored the influence of individual differences for this association (at level two).

RESULTS:

In Study One, processed foods, higher in fat and GL, were most frequently associated with addictive-like eating behaviors. In Study Two,processing was a large, positive predictor for whether a food was associated with problematic, addictive-like eating behaviors. BMI and YFAS symptom count were small-to-moderate, positive predictors for this association. In a separate model, fat and GL were large, positive predictors of problematic food ratings. YFAS symptom count was a small, positive predictor of the relationship between GL and food ratings.

CONCLUSION:

The current study provides preliminary evidence that not all foods are equally implicated in addictive-like eating behavior, and highly processed foods, which may share characteristics with drugs of abuse (e.g. high dose, rapid rate of absorption) appear to be particularly associated with "food addiction."

FAB RESEARCH COMMENT:

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For more information on research into how food may trigger addictive-like eating behaviour in vulnerable individuals, see: